The feeding of horses has become a combination of art and science. The science involves knowledge of the digestive and metabolic processes and each horse’s nutrient requirements. The art is less complex but yet has a huge impact on the horse’s wellbeing. It is important that we give serious thought to how we treat them when stabled.
“Feed as nature intended “ is a well used slogan and rightfully so. The art of feeding is based on the natural feeding position. A huge amount of money has been spent in all disciplines, trying to improve performance by fine-tuning diet and supplements. Sometimes we miss the obvious. We are all creatures of habit and once into a routine we are very loathed to alter our ways. Do we ever stop to think not what we feed but how we feed it? It is essential that we do because it affects our horses in so many different ways.
Horses are fundamentally non ruminant herbivores which means that they are suited to eating high fibre diets. As the horse evolved he lived on fibre from the vegetation. Horses do not ruminate. They naturally take in small amounts from each site when grazing and then move on, hence they are often referred to as ‘trickle feeders.’ It is important that we encourage trickle feeding and that forage is available at all times as this not only helps to keep the digestive system functioning correctly but also helps to ensure that our equines do not become bored. We all know how very unhappy a bored horse can be and how this boredom can lead to stable vices being developed.
It is essential that we stop to think how we feed the stabled horse. Tradition has dictated racks normally to be filled from overhead hay barns. Then we moved to nets, cheaper, very practical when travelling and very versatile, but did we stop to think what we were doing raising our horse’s heads from the floor to feed?
The feeding position has a huge impact on a horse’s jaw and teeth. When the head is raised the jaw goes out of alignment and this unnatural feeding position can lead to dental abnormalities. This increases the chances of developing lateral and medial hooks and speeds up the injestion. Uneven biting and chewing surfaces make it difficult for the horse to fully utilise his feed and get the nutrition it needs for optimum health and performance. The horse’s jaw is designed for eating while the head is down towards the ground. Feeding hay from haynets and hayracks has been suggested to increase the risk of developing cranial and caudal hooks on the dental arcade.
Any horse that is not comfortable in his mouth soon develops bitting problems and these can be exceedingly difficult to solve. A horse that is unhappy in his mouth can be a major problem. Once a horse becomes bit shy it can be difficult to get his confidence back.
Quidding is often evident when there are dental problems. If these problems are not treated a quidding horse will suffer progressive weight loss and then their general health may be affected. It is essential that we do not neglect their dental health.
Feeding position also has an impact on the digestive system. Horses that feed from the floor take their food more slowly and hence do not bolt it and as a result are far less likely to choke or colic. Bolting food and poor chewing can result in food being swallowed as a large mass that becomes lodged in the oesophagus causing considerable pain as it is slowly forced down into the stomach. The horse is unable to bring food back up and a choke is very distressing and the symptoms can be similar to the onset of colic. It is essential to try to discourage horses from bolting their food as this so easily leads to choke and in severe cases even to colic.
The vetenerians are very pro natural feeding as this position helps to ensure that the sinus drain down and it is also an aid to drainage of the respiratory tract. It is widely recognised that feeding from the floor helps horses that suffer from C.O.P.D. as it encourages drainage of the airways.
Most studs advocate the natural feeding policy. A large number of foals are born with far from normal limbs and feeding naturally can help to correct many of these problems, it also helps in the correct development of limb and muscle.
A horse should eat the way the body was designed with the back and neck stretched through it’s topline to a low level and the teeth and jaw working in a natural position. Encouraging the horse to stretch the back and neck muscles helps to ensure that the correct muscles are developed and maintained. Horses that eat from the wall often develop unsightly throat and under neck muscles. The advice we receive from our back experts and our physiotherapists is invariably to encourage our horses to feed from the floor and stretch the back and neck through the topline.
It does not matter what equine discipline you are in we all like our horses to develop a good top line and the natural position helps to make this possible. To get a horse to work in the correct outline is far from easy if the under neck muscles are over developed. It is essential that the top line is well developed.
The list of reasons for feeding the horse from the floor are endless – the reasons for feeding from the wall are purely ones of convenience. The stabled horse deserves to be fed from the floor if only to try to emulate his natural environment for a confined space in a stable is far from normal for them. Foraging from the floor encourages them to take more time over their food and helps to ensure that they do not become bored. A stabled horse spends many hours in a confined space.
Perhaps it is time we all gave serious thought to not what we feed but how.
Raylia C. Dugmore.
Park Feeders Ltd. ( Hay Bar.)